REVIVAL: THE RESURRECTION OF SON HOUSE at Geva Theatre
To close out their 2018-2019 season Rochester's Geva Theatre chose a piece with deep historical, musical, and local significance. Revival: The Resurrection of Son House was commissioned by Geva in 2015 and received a staged reading that year at their festival "Journey to the Son: A Celebration of Son House." The fully-staged production is now getting its world premiere, and it's the perfect capstone to a season rich with history, diverse voices, and new works.
Revival: The Resurrection of Son House tells the story of legendary blues icon Eddie "Son" House (Tony award-winner Cleavant Derricks) and takes the audience on a journey through the many chapters of his long and turbulent life, including his early years in the Mississippi delta, his time as a preacher, loss of faith, marriages, migration north (particularly his years in Rochester) to work as a laborer, and his triumphant return to music in his twilight years. Because Son spent a significant portion of his later life in Rochester, Revival has a local connection that's integral to the telling of his story, but also to the history of Rochester and its musical heritage. Audience members likely recognize the references to the places where Son lived and worked (especially our Corn Hill neighborhood), as well as jabs at our never-ending snow.
The narrative framework of Resurrection sets it apart from other biopics: it first presents Son after death as he's standing at judgement among deities who are arguing for-and-against his salvation or damnation. The audience is then taken on a flashback journey through his life, punctuated by narrators who set the stage for what's happening throughout the different chapters of Son's journey, as well as the greater African-American struggle including segregation, Jim Crow, race riots, and the 1965 Civil Rights Act. It's a 20th century history lesson running parallel with the literal struggle for Son's soul.
It can't be overstated how impressive the musicality of Revival is, and the ways in which gospel, spirituals, and the blues act as the latticework for the entire show. From the powerful, earth-shaking voices of the ensemble members (Antoine L. Smith, Clifton Oliver, Tyrone L. Robinson, AnnEliza Canning-Skinner, Badia Farha, and Alexis Sims, who all play multiple rolls) to the band that sounds like they're plucked right out of the Mississippi delta, it's a powerfully musical piece of theatre that cuts right to the soul, and gets the feet tapping.
And of course, at the center of the production is the great Cleavant Derricks, who plays Son from his earliest days as a teenager all the way through his elderly years-as well as in heaven after his death. Far from a generic imitation, Derricks embodies not only the look and sound of Son House, but his larger-than-life spirit. As we learn throughout the show, Son was a complicated figure; he spent his life battling alcoholism, had multiple wives, struggled with faith, and walked away from music entirely for decades. His life was an emotional journey, with Derricks captures masterfully through his acting, singing, and killer slide guitar-playing.
Revival: The Resurrection of Son House is a triumph. Whether you're a passionate blues fan or completely new to Son and his music, you'll be deeply moved by the ways in which writer/director Keith Glover infuses the tent revival aesthetic and the spirituals of Son's upbringing with the grittier slide guitar sound that he eventually became famous for. It's incredibly powerful, and a memorable way to end Geva's 18/19 season.